I TRY TO respond to my children's needs and wishes with an open mind and a generous heart. So when they ask to have a friend spend the night or to spend the night at another child's house, my reaction is always the same:
"What's in it for me?"
Long ago I realized that "sleepover" does not mean that one child will be sleeping over at another child's home, but that both children will have to do the sleeping part over the next day.
That, and there is nothing in it for me.
I am either up half the night with kids who won't settle down and go to sleep or, after having spent a quiet evening, I am wasting a perfectly good weekend day with a perfectly crabby kid.
So you can imagine my skepticism when I learned that teen-agers who can't seem to get enough of each other during the day are demanding to hold coed sleepovers.
These are not "lock-ins," the all-night affairs sponsored by churches and schools and held in gymnasiums or museums or bowling alleys or zoos or games palaces, where the selfless parent chaperones go in knowing they will not sleep.
These are a corruption of the harmless suburban tradition of the slumber party, created by teen-agers so that the fun of the prom or the homecoming dance can last past midnight even if their driver's licenses and their curfews do not.
Here's how it goes:
A group of kids shows up at your house in formal attire and carrying sleeping bags and sweats. There is a picture-taking session, and then they go off to the big dance. After they all turn back into pumpkins and white mice, they return to your house where they change into their sweats and proceed to watch videos, listen to music and eat you out of house and home until you chase everyone out the next morning.
I have a couple of middle-schoolers who have not yet added coed sleepovers to their list of outrageous demands, but parents just ahead of me in the teen life cycle have had to wrestle with this, so I know it is on my horizon.
Only after you have turned your family room over to a six-pack of boys, a case of Coca-Cola and all the video games they can play do you understand to what lengths parents will go to keep their children close and safe.
The coed sleepover is the logical extension of that. Your child and her friends can't die in a car crash if everybody is in your game room.
But there is more going on with a coed sleepover than that.
When they are not on the phone, teen-agers are trying to stretch the limits we set for them. It is what they do best. But too often they are not prepared for what happens next.
We want to assume that in our children's fresh-faced group of platonic friends and National Honor Society members there is no one who would smuggle dope or alcohol in their gym bag or pair off and make out in a sleeping bag.
But we are better off when we assume that someone will.
There is nothing like sleep deprivation and the intoxication of that time between midnight and dawn to impair judgment. And we have to respect the fact that some of these kids are not developmentally ready to handle that kind of freedom or to witness the behavior of others who think they are.
For every coed sleepover that ended in haggard wholesomeness, there are plenty of others that have ended with scarred hearts. It is wrong of us to put these kids in situations that we adults think are harmless and cute, even if it is our intention to walk unannounced into the room every 30 minutes.
Why would we want to subject our kids to a semi-sexual, semi-supervised, all-night test? The mixed message we are sending is an unfair trial of their ability to execute the value system we want them to adopt.
Aren't we saying, too, "I know you are going to drink and play at sex. I can't stop you, so at least do it where I can see you." This stuff isn't safe just because there isn't a motor vehicle involved.
Parents, and I am one of them, lose their footing with their kids. Battered with, "But everyone else is doing it," we succumb to our own need to fit in and be popular. Their teen-age years waken in us that urgent need to be liked.
Our efforts to keep communicating with our kids ends with us saying, "Yes." Our fear for their safety is motivation enough to make any compromise.
Check with me in a couple of years, but I hope I have the courage, when my kids want the entire homecoming dance to adjourn to our family room, to say, "Nope. There's nothing in it for you."
Pub Date: 11/30/97